You likely go to great lengths to keep mosquitoes from biting you. A mosquito bite’s sting and itch are the bane of being outdoors. But did you know this annoying pest can transmit a potentially fatal condition to your cat or dog? Heartworm disease, caused by the Dirofilaria immitis parasite, can impact the host’s lungs, heart, and blood vessels as it reaches adulthood. Understanding heartworm disease and taking proactive prevention measures are crucial for your pet’s well-being. Our Bartow Animal Clinic team covers everything you need to know about heartworm disease and what you can do to protect your four-legged friend.

What is heartworm disease?

Heartworm disease is transmitted through an infected mosquito’s bite. A mosquito bites an infected animal, typically a wild mammal, and ingests microscopic larvae—microfilariae—and the animal’s blood. The microfilariae then mature within the mosquito and become infective larvae, which can then be transmitted to pets and wildlife through subsequent mosquito bites.

Once inside a new host, the infective larvae mature into adult worms over several months. They primarily reside in the host’s heart and pulmonary arteries. As the worms grow, they can severely damage the host’s heart, lungs, and associated blood vessels.

Heartworm disease signs in pets

Because full-blown heartworm disease takes months to progress, your pet may only show signs once the heartworms are fully developed and are damaging their heart. Heartworm disease signs include:

  • Soft, dry coughing
  • Inactivity or lethargy
  • Weight loss
  • Panting
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Unusual allergic reaction or asthmatic reaction, often seen in cats
  • Collapse

Preventing heartworm disease in pets

Many people erroneously believe heartworm disease isn’t a problem in urban areas. However, this is untrue. The American Heartworm Society (AHS) features a map of where heartworm cases have been found. Florida, along with other southern states, has a high number of reported heartworm cases. Prevention is the key to protecting pets from heartworm disease. To help prevent your furry companion from contracting heartworm disease, follow these tips:

  • Monthly heartworm preventives — Our veterinary team recommends administering monthly preventive medications to protect pets from heartworm infection. These medications, available in various forms, such as chewable tablets, topical solutions, and injections, kill the immature larvae before they can mature into adult worms. By far, parasite prevention is the best defense against parasite-borne diseases. 
  • Annual heartworm screening — Our veterinarian will perform heartworm testing during your pet’s yearly exam, which is essential for early infection detection. Even pets on preventive medications should have regular testing to remain free from heartworm disease. Early detection allows for timely intervention and treatment. 
  • Mosquito control — Minimizing your pet’s exposure to mosquitoes can help reduce their heartworm disease risk. Avoiding outdoor activities during dusk and dawn—peak mosquito activity times— using pet-safe mosquito repellents, and eliminating standing water around your home can all help reduce mosquito populations and lower your furry pal’s infection risk. Also, all weeds and tall grasses that would otherwise harbor outdoor pests should be cut down. Remember that citronella products are poisonous to pets, so ensure your pet cannot access them or use pet-safe repellents. 
  • Year-round prevention — Insects don’t take vacations, so year-round parasite protection is necessary. Do not skip a month of your pet’s preventives because they may need to be screened for heartworm disease and started on preventives again. Only one mosquito bite can cause your pet to develop this virulent disease.

Heartworm disease poses a significant threat to your pet’s health and well-being, but with appropriate preventive measures, the condition is preventable. You can significantly reduce your pet’s heartworm infection risk by administering monthly preventive medications, having them tested regularly for heartworm disease, controlling mosquitoes, and scheduling routine veterinary care. 

Stay proactive and vigilant by following our tips for protecting your pet from heartworm disease, which is a small effort that can make a big difference in your furry pal’s quality of life. Contact our Bartow Animal Clinic team and get your pet started on essential heartworm prevention.